Deaglán de Bréadún: Mary Lou McDonald's leadership could mark a turning point for republicanism
We need to talk about Mary Lou McDonald. There are very strong indications she will be the new president of Sinn Féin before the end of next month. Nobody else has peeked over the parapet at time of writing and Gerry Adams is in the exit corridor, although it’s hard to believe we’ve heard the last of him.
Assuming the coronation – sorry, election – runs smoothly, Mary Lou (her proper name is “Mary Louise”, by the way) will be the main leader of a party which, like it or not, looks set to play a critical role in all our futures. Even unionists, dissident republicans and middle-class conservatives of every shade will have to take her seriously, as her actions and those of her party will doubtless affect them.
In at least one significant respect, her elevation will mark a watershed in the politics of republicanism. Despite Gerry’s stout denials that he was ever in the IRA, his name is indissolubly linked in the public mind with the Provo campaign. Mary Lou on the other hand wasn’t born until the year the shooting started, in 1969.
Her background is quite middle-class, although you couldn’t describe her as a toff and her accent has a grass-roots Dublin overlay that may have come with her move to the north side of the River Liffey, where she now lives.
Growing up on the supposedly-posher south side of the city, in the leafy suburb of Rathgar, she attended a private fee-paying secondary school in the neighbourhood. Then it was on to Trinity College Dublin to study English Literature, where she took a particular interest in the plays of Samuel Beckett. Indeed the latter’s Waiting for Godot, where nothing happens twice, surely provided a good grounding for the repetitive futility of the current talks process in the north.
Since she had family connections with Fianna Fáil, it was perhaps inevitable that her first foray into politics would be as a member of that party, in the constituency of Dublin West. Here the story gets complicated. When I was researching my book, Power Play: The Rise of Modern Sinn Féin (Merrion Press, 2015), several long-time Fianna Fáilers told me her advancement in the party was blocked by the late and greatly-missed Brian Lenihan Jr, who later became minister for finance and died of cancer at the age of 52. As one activist put it bluntly, “Lenihan ran her out of it”, because she might take his Dáil seat in Dublin West. This was emphatically denied by Mary Lou who categorically rejected any suggestion that she left the party because she didn’t get a nomination to run for the Dáil. She also firmly rejected claims that she was undermined by Lenihan or anyone else: “That’s not true.”
She said the real reason she left to join Sinn Féin was her feeling that Fianna Fáil was not really committed to the social equality side of republicanism. She also felt her interest in northern affairs, particularly the efforts by nationalist residents in Portadown to prevent an Orange Order parade marching along the Garvaghy Road, was not widely shared in the party.
As well as joining Fianna Fáil, she had become involved in the Irish National Congress (INC), a left-republican alliance which also included the current minister of state for disability issues and Independent TD for Dublin Bay North, Finian McGrath. Mary Lou became chair of the INC in April 2000 and in that capacity led an INC protest in Dublin against the involvement of Dublin’s Labour Party lord mayor in the unveiling of a plaque at 59 Dawson Street where the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland held its first meeting, in the fateful year of 1798.
Sinn Féín’s ability to attract a new generation of political activists like Mary Lou McDonald has been one of its great strengths. It may in part be due to its rapid growth that it is currently having internal organisational problems with persistent allegations of bullying. She denies there is a bullying culture but accepts there is “an issue” requiring to be addressed.
Another major challenge for the incoming leader is the Stormont impasse with the DUP which is damaging the international standing of both parties and really needs to be resolved in time for the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in April.
Maybe Mary Lou could take inspiration from the much-admired, recently-deceased Maurice Hayes, who wrote in his memoir of life as a Catholic public servant in the north, Minority Verdict (Blackstaff Press, 1995): “My own instinct has been to join in things, to work from the inside to change systems or attitudes rather than to lecture or hector from without, not to take umbrage or to imagine slights or rebuffs, and to try to effect change incrementally over time.”